IT APPEARS that China could be the saviour of the Scotch beef sector – not because we are likely to see more than a transit van-load of beef exported to feed the vast population of that country, but because Ireland has now got 21 abattoirs qualified to export to China, with some beef already on its way.

It looks as if it could be a much more rewarding market for Irish beef compared to the UK, but there is plenty of competition for this Chinese market, with the US, Uruguay, Argentina, Brazil, Australia and New Zealand all increasing their exports, some by as much as 60%.

In 2012, China imported 70,000 tons of beef and last year it exceeded a million tons. This year it is likely to be higher, owing to the pig decimation by African swine fever.

For many years, the UK has been Ireland’s number one customer for beef, with some 62% of its production coming across the Irish Sea. In fact, right now it is to be found on almost every supermarket shelf. That may soon change because of the eye-watering increase in the value of beef Worldwide, due to the Chinese demand, coupled with its growing affluence for beef!

Who knows what will happen if this African swine fever spreads further? The demand from a growing World population for protein could see the value of meat change significantly. I wonder what connection there is to the announcement by Waitrose and M and S, that from next year they are only going to source their lamb from the UK all year round with no further imports from New Zealand and Australia?

Is it my cynical mind that there is another reason – these two countries can receive a much better return from the Chinese market for their lamb than they can from UK. My contact in Kiwi land says that China could be the sheep industry’s saviour in New Zealand, especially if they are to meet their recently passed law by the Government, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by around 50% by 2050.

This could mean that NZ would have to half livestock numbers, meaning they would have to cull around two million dairy cows. At the moment NZ is the largest exporter of dairy products in the World. I wonder what effect that would have on milk prices?

The beef sector, and particularly the Limousin breed, had a lift in its fortunes on the last day of November at Carlisle Market when John Logan and family dispersed their Humebyers herd of Limousins to a packed ringside. Quality always sells, which was certainly the case – well fleshed and very docile cattle,which was the highlight of this long established herd. All credit to father and son for breeding very acceptable, not too extreme, cattle that will be much more sought after in the future.

I have attended a few shows recently, the first one being the very well organised Stars of the Future at UA Stirling. I do not think there were quite as many spectators as previously, to see more cattle than what we have had in the past.

The two largest breeds, numerically, were the Angus and Highlanders, who were also the most improved breed on the day, especially on tops and length. In complete contrast were the commercials, that were being shown for the first time.

Next was the Live-Scottish Fatstock Club sector at Caledonian Market, on a bitterly cold night, with only a handful of spectators, causing many to leave even before Aileen Ingram had finished her judging. 23 were excluded for being overweight and Aileen had a difficult job judging as there were so few cattle properly finished.

Three days later at the Scotbeef Abattoir there was certainly plenty of lean beef with E's and U ones and twos in abundance. That is maybe what the supermarkets think their customers want, but I am afraid in my book this lean beef will only destroy sales in the future. We do not need the BBC to do it for us, we are doing it ourselves, or should I say the grading system, plus the weight reduction is killing beef sales.

Fortunately I went to Lanark to see Livescot where I had a conversation with six procurement people from different companies who reassured me that the cattle they saw at the Cally were almost totally different from what they procured everyday for their abattoirs, which was comforting. I understand there was a US farmer at both Cally and Livescot who could not find words to describe the difference in the cattle at both events compared to back home, where beef sales are rising, as I reported after our visit to the States in July.

Although there were perhaps less spectators and less cattle at Livescot, it was ably judged by Dougie McBeath who knew exactly what he was doing. Yes, we could have disagreed here and there, but that was splitting hairs. Of all the cattle I saw at every event, the one I would have liked to put on my barbecue was Dougie’s Champion pure bred Highland steer from Stephen and Rosemary Hunter’s herd. Andy Ingram bought it at the sale so he will know who is going to enjoy some great tasting beef with plenty of flavour and succulence.

I was not at the Christmas Classic at Aberdeen but the report from my good friend, Dean Anderson, was similar to what I found in the Central belt – less livestock and less people attending – why? Is it because of the cost, is it only a hobby? I heard there was an animal that cost £7000 at one of the events I attended. Is the commercial show-ring out of touch with commercial reality ? Are these shows going to survive?

There were plenty of young people taking part which would indicate that the enthusiasm was there, however the £18million that has been taken out of the beef producers’ bank accounts over the last 12 months certainly is not going to help! We are still 30p/kilo short of where the price needs to be if we are to have a Scotch beef sector similar to what it is at the moment.

It is not often this part of Scotland gets better weather than my arable friends in the East. With 2.5" here in November, being one of the driest in the last 30 years, a friend in Forfar recorded 6.5”, and another in the Borders, reported 7". Maybe the climate is changing or is it reversing with the West becoming drier than the East? As I penned my last notes early due to the absence of my 'Secretary', who was in Australia, here are a few notes about her thoughts from 'Down Under'.

My visit to Australia was to see our dear friend Margaret Griffies who emigrated with her husband, Henry, 15 years ago, and on hindsight, she admits it was a bad move. However I do think that she has had more than her fair share of bad luck, including losing Henry after only 5 years there. As Jim Walker said last week, the Aussie’s seem to pick themselves up from adversity, and Margaret has done the same.

While fires raged near Brisbane and Sydney, the farmers in Victoria were making wholecrop, some of which would be sent to help livestock where it was most needed. In some cases, those affected by drought shipped their stock hundreds of miles to where water was adequate to grow fodder, or allowed their cattle to graze the wide verges of the road ways where wild oats survived.

Water is their lifeline. Without irrigation nothing grows, and it is more than twice the price than 15 years ago. I was staying 330 miles north of Melbourne, a straight road bordered by acres of flat land on either side, some dairying areas, acres of grain which would be harvested by Xmas, providing it was not destroyed by freak storms or locusts, fresh fields of fruit trees, apples, citrus, vineyards and a few fields of alfalfa for hay or silage added a touch of bright green to the brown landscape.

I reckon it had to be good to produce milk or beef as there was not much to graze. Being so flat it was mainly flood irrigation but also wheeled. Land values with lasered, commandable land is around $1700 to 2000 Aus. dollars per acre. Roughly, for 300 acres you are allowed 600 mega litres of water.

Like here, the price for milk is unsustainable. Each processor builds their own system. At better times they may get 50-60 cents per litre (33p.), but reckon 70 cents is needed, so it is understandable why so many dairy farmers are going out of business. They see China as a great market for dairy produce and beef but so far there does not seem to be any incentive, or bonus to encourage them.

Milk in shops is £1.66/2 litres, cheese £7.78 p per kilo, mince, £6.94, sirloin £18.33, fillet £21.11, lamb leg £18.05p, so not a great difference. Lovely for a visit, but I will stick to Scotland!